Google Assistant guide: Make the most of your virtual assistant

By | 14th March 2018

What is Google Assistant?

Google Assistant is Google’s virtual assistant, available on Android and iOS mobile devices, as well as smart home devices like smart speakers and smart TVs. Think of it as your own personal assistant, that can help you at a moment’s notice with a variety of tasks, and all you have to do is ask!

In our in-depth Google Assistant guide, we’re taking a close look at the service with a focus on how to use Google Assistant, tips and tricks, devices, and other key details.

Why is Google Assistant a big deal?

Google Assistant is Google’s major play not just for search and smartphones, but also to build an ecosystem of smart, connected devices. As more and more internet-connected devices reach the market, searching the web and performing commands via voice rather than text or touch, is becoming increasingly important. Equally as important is the need for a unified system that can tie multiple devices together, so a command issued on your phone can switch the lights off on your front porch.

Assistant is Google’s solution to this problem and combines the company’s internet search prowess with the its latest innovations in fields of artificial intelligence, voice recognition, and big data.

Assistant is a powerful piece of technology once you’ve got it all set up, so read through our Google Assistant guide to get up to speed.

How to use Google Assistant

The key to the convenience of Google Assistant lies in keyword voice activation. Simply say “Ok, Google” or “Hey, Google”, ask your question, such is “What is the weather going to be like today”, and Assistant will give you the answer.

Alternatively, Google Assistant can be activated on your Android smartphone with a long press on the home button or home icon. If you’re having trouble getting started, keyword activation also doesn’t always work if your device is locked.

When using smart speakers, headphones, and some smartphones, the voice activation feature is enabled by default, but can be toggled on and off in your phone’s settings. To toggle hotword detection, head on into the Google App or Assistant screen and navigate to Settings. Scroll down to Devices, Phone, and then you’ll see the options to toggle Google Assistant on or off, ‘Ok, Google’ Detection, and even the option to unlock your phone using Voice Match. The steps below can walk you through this:

All interactions with Google Assistant begin with 'Ok, Google' or 'Hey, Google' keyword detection.

Google Assistant can be used for much more than just answering questions. Under the same Settings menu you will also find options for setting up music and video accounts, managing other smart home devices, picking your favourite news sources, linking Assistant to your Google Calendar, and many more options. All of these configure the way Assistant interacts with various commands. So for example, linking your Spotify account means that will be the service used if you ask Assistant to play you songs from a certain artist or playlist.

What devices is Google Assistant available on?

Smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches

Google Assistant is available on a wide range of device, including your smartphone and tablet. Assistant isn’t limited to any particularly smartphone brand, but there are a few requirements.

Your smartphone or tablet will need to be running Android 6.0 Marshmallow or newer, version 6.13 or higher of the Google app, have Google Play services installed, and a phone with at least 1.4 GB of memory and a 720p display. All relatively new smartphones should qualify, and there’s no manual installation or updating required to get things working.

An optimized version of Google Assistant is available on Android Go devices, like the Alcatel 1X and Nokia 1.

Google Assistant is not exclusive to smartphones: the Kai OS-powered feature phone JioPhone features a version of Google Assistant, and more feature phones could get it in the future.

Read: Hands-on with Android Go on the Alcatel 1X

Google Assistant is also available on recent Android Wear devices, as well as Chromebooks.

On Android phones, supported languages currently include English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, and Portuguese (Brazil). Google said it will expand Assistant to 30 languages by the end of the year. Tablet support is currently limited to U.S. English only.

Smart speakers & headphones

Perhaps just as widely used as smartphone support is Google’s range of smart speakers. The Google Home, Home Mini, and Home Max are all built around Assistant voice commands, as well as playing music, and are a great starting point for building your smart home (more on that later).

In addition to the Google Home range, voice-activated speakers from multiple manufacturers are available now or coming soon:

  • Altec Lansing
  • Anker Innovations
  • Bang & Olufsen
  • Braven
  • iHome
  • JBL
  • Jensen
  • LG
  • Klipsch
  • Knit Audio
  • Memorex
  • RIVA Audio
  • SōLIS

Wireless headphones are also increasingly offering voice control support powered by Google Assistant. So far the Google Pixel Buds, JBL Everest range, Bose QuietComfort 35 II, and a selection of Sony products are your best bets for smart headphones.

Smart displays

The latest form factor for Google’s Assistant is the smart display. It’s essentially the same concept as the smart speaker, but with a display that can play videos, show weather forecasts, and the like.

Lenovo was the first onboard here, having announced its Smart Display at CES 2018. JBL, LG, and Sony are also planning to launch similar products later in the year.

In your living room

Android TV supports Google Assistant on compatible models, including both set-top boxes and TV sets with Android TV built-in. For now, Google Assistant can be used on Nvidia Shield, Sony’s 2016 and later Bravia TVs, and Xiaomi Mi TV.

Google also announced that TVs from LG running webOS will also get in the Assistant action.

In your car

Assistant has also made its way to the automotive space in the U.S. as part of Google’s Android Auto software. If your car runs Android Auto as its infotainment system (over 400 models support it so far) you can connect your phone and use voice commands for navigation, messaging, and the like. Google is also working with manufacturers to incorporate Assistant directly into cars without the need for a paired phone in the future.

Google Assistant and Android Auto includes some specific vehicle related commands. With certain models, it’s possible to check your fuel level, lock doors, and more from connected Assistant powered devices.

Use Assistant in your smart home

One of Google Assistant ‘s most powerful features is its ability to act as the hub for your connected smart home. Assistant can be used to control a wide range of devices, starting with your Chromecast or TV through to something as seemingly humdrum as a light bulb. All of these devices can be configured and controlled through the Google Home app.

At the time of this writing, Google Assistant is compatible with over 1500 smart home products from over 200 brands. A directory listing all supported devices is available here. Product categories include:

  • lighting, plugs, outlets, and other electrical gear
  • washers, dryers, refrigerators, ranges, vacuums, air conditioners and other home appliances
  • cameras, locks, and security systems
  • speakers, internet radios, and other audio equipment

To start with, you’ll want to connect up your devices. Each device will guide you through the necessary setup, which usually requires little more than standing near the device with your WiFi and location on, hitting a button, and naming the device. To add new devices to your smart home, simply head into the Google Home app, click the device icon in the top right, and then Add New Device at the bottom of the Devices screen. Then simply follow the setup instructions.

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If you didn’t do so during setup, you’ll gain greater flexibility over your smart home by making use of Google Assistant’s Nickname and Room assignments. This will allow you to refer to specific devices or rooms when issuing voice commands in order to better direct your requests. To add, edit, and delete names and rooms, head into the Settings menu and click Home control of the Google Home app.

For example, assigning your lights into somewhere called the bedroom means that you can say “Hey Google, turn off the bedroom lights”. Similarly, you can set your home up so that “OK Google, play music on my living room speaker” works, even if you’re talking to a different smart speaker or your phone in the kitchen.

The best Google Assistant commands by category

Now that you have your devices setup, it’s time to issue some useful voice commands. Most commands apply regardless of the hardware you’re talking too, but there are some exceptions, such as attempting to watch a Netflix video on a speaker!

Where to find Google Assistant commands

You can find a full breakdown of the ever-growing list of commands over at Google’s official directory, but we’ve covered some of the most useful ones below.

General queries

  • “Good morning” – This command is a catch all for your morning routine, Assistant can give you a weather report, details on your route to work, and recite the latest news bulletins. (More routines are coming soon.)
  • “Wake me up at …” – Assistant can fill in as your personal alarm clock.
  • “Open …” – open up any app on your phone just by saying its name.
  • “Set a reminder for …” – add reminders to your calendar, complete with time and place, so you’ll never miss a date again.
  • “Set a timer for …” – slow cooking a chicken or baking some muffins? Assistant’s timer setting is incredibly useful for nailing those recipe timings.
  • “Turn on Bluetooth” – Toggle Bluetooth, WiFi, your phone’s flashlight, and pretty much every other hardware option without reaching for a settings menu.
  • “Add … to my shopping list” – Google can store online shopping lists for you and when paired up with Assistant you can quickly add and remove items via voice.

Music

  • “Play classical music” –  Instead of playing music by song, artist, or album, picking a genre can be a great way to discover new music.
  • “Play … radio” – You don’t have to stream from a service like Spotify, Assistant can also play online radio stations.
  • “Skip song” – As well as play, pause, and stop, you can skip along.
  • “What’s Playing?” – Assistant can give you artist and sony info for anything currently streaming.
  • “Turn it up” – Volume can be adjusted up and down at 10% increments, or set to a specific level.

Pictures and video

  • “Show my pictures of … “ – If you use Google Photos, Assistant can pick out pictures of people, places, and dates on request.
  • “Play … on TV” – Link up your streaming accounts your smart TV or Chromecast and Assistant can play shows directly onto your TV.
  • “Stream … from Youtube” – Catch up with your favourite YouTube shows.
  • “Turn on subtitles” – Quickly toggle subtitles on or off and even pick your desired language without reaching for the remote. The same works for dubbing too.

Smart home

  • “Turn on [light name].”, “Turn off [light name].” – Turn on or off a light.
  • “Dim the [light name].”, “Brighten the [light name].” – Dim or brighten a light.
  • “Set [light name] to 50%.” – Set a light brightness to a certain percentage.
  • “Dim/brighten [light name] by 50%.” – Dim or brighten lights by a certain percentage.
  • “Turn [light name] green].” – Change the color of a light.
  • “Turn on lights in [room name].”, “Turn off lights in [room name].” – Turn on or off all lights in a room.
  • “Turn on all of the lights.”, “Turn off all of the lights.” – Turn on or off all lights.
  • “Make it warmer/cooler.”, “Raise/lower the temperature.”, “Raise/lower the temperature two degrees.”, “Set the temperature to 72 degrees.” – Adjust the temperature.
  • “Turn on heat/cooling.”, “Set the thermostat to cooling/heating.”, “Turn the thermostat to heat-cool mode.” – Switch to heating or cooling modes.
  • “Set the heat to 68.”, “Set the air conditioning to 70.”, “Set [room name] thermostat to 72.” – Set the mode and temperature.
  • “Turn off thermostat.” – Turn thermostat off.
    “Turn on cooling/heating.”, “Turn on heat/cool.”, “Set the heat to 68.”, “Set the air conditioning to 70.”, etc. – Turn thermostat back on.
  • “What’s the temperature inside?” – Check the ambient temperature on the thermostat.
  • “Hey Google, what’s the thermostat set to?” – Check what the thermostat is set to.

Tips, tricks & fun

  • “Find my phone” – We’ve all misplaced our phone, but if you’ve connected your smart speaker to your Google account simply ask it to find your phone and, providing your handset has a data connection, it will ring.
  • Check movie times – Assistant is quite good at finding localized results, so asking “what time is [movie] showing” will display local cinema results. In fact, you can check the open times and details for many local businesses listed with Google.
  • Asking further questions – This is a little more hit and miss, but Assistant can often understand follow up questions. Sticking with the previous example, you might ask “what’s playing at [cinema]” followed by “what time are they showing [movie]”, and Assistant will remember that you’re talking about the same cinema.
  • “Beatbox!”  – does what it says. Enjoy.
  • Tune an instrument – ask for a specific note and Assistant can provide. Handy for tuning guitars and other instruments.
  • “Tell me a joke” – a library of groaners that’s sure to lighten anyone’s mood.
  • “Recite a poem” – Assistant has a selection of classic poems ready to help you unwind.
  • “Do you like Star Trek, or Star Wars?” – Be prepared for a range of confusing crossover answers sure to delight and infuriate fans in equal measure.

We’ll let you discover the rest on your own:

  • “Do a barrel roll.”
  • “What’s the loneliest number?”
  • “Make me a sandwich.”
  • “When am I?”
  • “Beam me up, Scotty.”
  • “How can entropy be reversed?”
  • “Tell me a joke.”
  • “Up up down down left right left right B A start.”
  • “Who’s on first?”
  • “I am your father.”
  • “Set phasers to kill.”
  • “Did you fart?”
  • “It’s my birthday.”
  • “It’s not my birthday.”
  • “Who let the dogs out?”
  • “Do you want to build a snowman?”
  • “How many roads must a man walk down?”
  • “Who is the real Slim Shady?”
  • “Who ya gonna call?”
  • “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?”
  • “Where’s Waldo?”
  • “Party on, Wayne.”

Google Assistant actions/third-party apps

Google Assistant is powered by actions, which are the little conversations you have with Assistant in order to get anything done. While Google provides a lot of actions out of the box, additional commands for interacting with third-party hardware and software can be added to Assistant via Assistant apps.

Where to find Google Assistant actions/third-party apps

Users can discover third-party apps for the Assistant via the Actions app directory on the web and mobile devices.

The directory is designed to allow users to find new apps for and customize their assistant ecosystem, and includes products ranging from trivia applications through to fitness and TV tools designed to work with external hardware.

Here are a few examples of third-party actions for Google Assistant:

  • “Ask CNN for the latest news”
  • “Ask My Crypto Wallet how much is bitcoin?”
  • “Ask Virtual Nurse how do I help somebody having a panic attack”
  • “Ask Train Track if the L train is delayed”
  • “Talk to Harry Potter Jokes”
  • “Send a Whatsapp message”

There’s a budding ecosystem of third-party tools and applications, with over 1 million actions now available. Developers can build their Assistant Apps and actions using either Dialogflow or the Actions SDK. Dialogflow is a “conversational platform” that offers an easy-to-use IDE, machine learning, and other tools while wrapping the functionality of the Actions SDK.

Google Assistant vs Amazon Alexa

Google’s closest competitor in the assistant and smart home ecosystem is Amazon’s Alexa and Echo speaker systems.

At a glance, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are very similar. Both allow users to interact with simple voice commands, and there’s plenty of crossover between the types of typical actions, or skills as Amazon calls them, that can be issued, ranging from weather forecasts to streaming music. Even the first party hardware is very similar, ranging from the small bedside Echo Dot and Home Mini speakers up to larger more powerful living room options.

Just like Google, Amazon is also positioning Alexa as an option for third-party speaker and smart display manufacturers. Alexa already has a large ecosystem of hardware that encompasses speakers, TVs, vehicle infotainment systems, and even smart mirrors and bathtubs. It’s Google that’s actually playing catch up in terms of product portfolio size and partner support, but the company is closing the gap.

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However there are some major differences between how the two ecosystems operate and the type of functionality that they’re trying to offer. Most notably is that Google can operate on smartphones and in the home, while Alexa is mostly tied to smart home products. Assistant is primarily designed to be used on a handset, keeping track of your calendar, route to work, and other little bits of information.

Read: Google Assistant vs Siri vs Bixby vs Amazon Alexa vs Cortana – Best virtual assistant showdown!

Perhaps the best way to think about the differences between the two is that Alexa is prominently a smart home hub and a way to interact with other services, such as order a pizza. Google Assistant, on the other hand, is much closer to a PA, keeping track of the little details you might need throughout your day. Although the lines do blur once you start using Assistant in smart home products, and there’s still more similarities than differences between what the two can do.

The Google Assistant exists in this array of devices.

Wrap-up

Google Assistant is a powerful tool for both your smartphone and your smart home. It’s a particularly handy tool to perform basic searches with your voice and keep track of your daily routines, and it’s an equally powerful tool for configuring and controlling smart home products too. The Google Assistant ecosystem continues to grow, with both new software and hardware support heading our way in 2018.

Chances are Assistant has something to offer you. Feel free to share your own Google Assistant tips and tricks in the comments below.